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Insignia

Insignia. Special identification for soldiers and their instruments of war predates recorded history, going back to specially carved prehistoric clubs, and including such well‐known examples as Egyptian chariots, Israelite tribal symbols, Roman standards, Zulu regalia, and American Indian warpaint. Anthropologists and psychologists have suggested a warrior's need to identify with a proud unit, or to personalize, trust, and feel affection for those implements that deliver the warrior from or to destruction.

During the Crusades, at the siege of Antioch in 1097, since suits of armor were somewhat anonymous, the Crusaders painted their shields to help them recognize each other in the heat of battle. These later evolved into official coats of arms, representing families and clans. The spirit of knighthood quickly transferred such symbols into elaborate robes, medals, and rings, which became the forerunners of modern metal military insignia.

As weaponry began to render body armor obsolete, coats of arms were scaled down and used on tunics and caps, still in the form of the escutcheon or shield. In 1484, Richard III of England founded the Herald's College or College of Arms to determine who would wear certain coats of arms and what the symbols would look like. From this arose the term heraldry, an art form that, in the modern military services, remains basically unchanged from Richard's original intent. To avoid duplication and confusion, unit members who wish to create or change their primary emblem must still submit a preliminary piece of artwork to their service heraldry organization and have it officially approved.

As regular standing armies emerged in America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, unit insignia became standardized. Men of common ancestry could now wear the colors of famous units on their uniforms, enhancing both esprit de corps and fighting troop morale. When George Washington took command of the Continental army in 1775, he ordered his officers to wear colored rosettes on their hats as symbols of rank, beginning a long tradition of American military insignia that followed the European style. From these emblems of rank evolved the current use of shoulder or sleeve stripes and metal pins or embroidery as rank insignia. The pride and sense of history generated by such insignia remains a significant part of the military mystique.

Some weapons systems were also identified with official and sometimes unofficial identification symbols. In the twentieth century, the airplane provided the ultimate evolution of the medieval steed carrying a knight's colors into battle. Aircraft nose art—the most popular form of aircraft insignia—was created almost as soon as there were military aircraft. Italy was the first country to use the aircraft in war, deploying several planes to Tripoli in 1912. By 1913, a number of squadrons were using unit and identification markings, since, as the knights of old had discovered, friend and foe were anonymous in battle without some form of decoration. A Nieuport‐Macchi of the Italian Navy was painted like a sea monster, with a face, teeth, eyes, and large ears, and the number 20 in large black numerals. In addition, the Italians marked the aircraft with 1‐inch by 5‐inch white wound stripes for each bullet hole received in combat.

At the start of World War I, the first additions of color to warplanes centered on national and squadron markings; on the ground, French motor transport units were the first to use a form of stylized identification, painted on the sides of their vans. Later, a young, idealistic American ambulance driver and fledgling artist named Walt Disney painted his own vehicle's canvas sides. These insignia, particularly on ambulances, were so graphic in depicting nurses, Indian heads, cartoon characters, and animals that French aircraft squadrons quickly applied similar motifs.

Though the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was the first to introduce numbers and letters on their aircraft, it was the Belgians, French, Italians, and Russians who used unit symbols as a departure to embellish their planes with a colorful variety of emblems. At this point, individual pieces of art began to appear, unique to the pilot. The British were the first to name individual aircraft. No. 10 (Naval) Squadron's “Black Flight” of black‐painted Sopwith Triplanes became famous when its core of five Canadians painted names on their machines.

In late 1916, Allied pilots started reporting brightly colored, outlandish, even fantastic German fighters, using every color of the rainbow. The Jagdstaffein, on an incredible victory streak that peaked during what the RFC remembered as “Bloody April” 1917, were allowing their pilots to paint their fighters in any combination of colors they wanted.

The trend was initiated by German ace Oswald Boelcke, who painted his Halberstadt blue; it was then imitated by Manfred von Richthofen, known as the “Red Baron” for his red Albatros D III. Before long, the Red Baron's Jasta 11 pilots were using some form of red on their aircraft, with the understanding that only the Red Baron's would remain entirely red. Other Jagdstaffein followed with what became known as the “Flying Circus” rainbow of colors, as well as individual art painted on the aircraft at the pilot's request. Belgian, French, Russian, Polish, and finally American Nieuports, and then Spads, began to sport their pilots' heraldry, reviving a medieval tradition as “Knights of the Air.”

With World War II came the golden age of aircraft insignia. Though other nations identified and to some extent decorated their aircraft, the Americans made individual nose insignia an art form, plastering them on almost anything that flew, and even on tanks and ships. Listening to some of the crews who fought that war in the air, one would not be hard‐pressed to conclude that the American pinup, and the field art it inspired, helped win the war. Though there were almost as many examples of nose art without them, women, usually in pinups, served as the prime movers for this phenomenon of flying personalized aircraft into combat. Americans defined much of what has come to be accepted as aircraft insignia, influencing the history profoundly.

Since World War II, American military insignia—in the air, at sea, and on the ground—have for the most part been muted by the generals and admirals for camouflage reasons. Anything that glinted or was colorful was given earth, sea, or sky tones to match its surroundings. But invariably the colors break out, enhancing morale and spirit. Military insignia, particularly the variety created by Americans, will always represent pride and color in a very dangerous profession.
[See also Air Warfare; Awards, Decorations, and Honors.]

Bibliography

Jeffrey L. Ethell and and Clarence Simonsen , The History of Aircraft Nose Art: World War I to Today, 1991.

Jeffrey L. Ethell

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insignia

in·sig·ni·a / inˈsignēə/ • n. (pl. same or -ni·as) a badge or distinguishing mark of military rank, office, or membership of an organization; an official emblem: a khaki uniform with colonel's insignia on the collar. ∎ chiefly poetic/lit. a distinguishing mark or token of something: they left eternally inert blooms, the insignia of melancholy.

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"insignia." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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insignia

insignia XVII. — L., pl. of insigne sign, badge of office, sb. use of n. of insignis distinguished (as by a mark), f. IN-1 + signum SIGN; see -IA2.

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"insignia." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"insignia." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/insignia-1

insignia

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